Performance as resistance


Scholarly Discourse Surrounding Sarita See’s Ideas on the Postcolonial Body and Performance

Under US colonialism, Filipinos were stripped of knowledge about their culture’s history which allowed room for the US to force an identity upon them. Sarita See, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, contributes to the scholarly conversation regarding Filipino Americans’ use of performance as a form of self-expression and agency. In her book, The Decolonized Eye, See analyzes the postcolonial body and performance to understand how Filipino American artists have coped with their conditions since the 1899 Philippine-American War. She observes that while referencing the body, Filipino American artists “respond to a matrix of historical, psychic, and cultural dispossession by producing a visual and rhetorical grammar of violence that in turn ‘disarticulates’ the empire.”[1] These artists joke, tease, create puns, and depict bodily injury in response to the imperial obliteration and disarticulation of their language. The artists used these tactics to survive a history of mass warfare, and they continue to use them to survive in a postcolonial state that has no indegineous cultural consciousness. See reminds us that Filipino Americans are more than mere victims of violence and trauma; they are creative geniuses who rupture the ideas of American benevolence and racial democracy and challenge the dominant narratives. This essay explores other scholars’ responses to See’s contribution in the scholarship of Filipino American experience.

Kathleen Tantuico connects See’s conversation to a larger conversation about museums’ voluntary redistribution of colonial artifacts to their homelands. Tantuico describes See’s The Decolonized Eye as being divided into two parts. The first focuses on how colonial people are deprived of knowledge about their culture’s history while the second focuses on how subsequent generations have dealt with such dispossession of knowledge. Tantuico advises that museum-goers should be wary when viewing Filipino displays in American museums. By taking a second look, we can prevent perpetuating stereotypes and can reveal new narratives that debunk the primitive portrayal of the colonized. Tantuico explains that the stage adaptations that See discusses provide us with “such [a] second look [that] can create a new narrative for the existing image of the Filipino primitive.”[2] An adaptation of these performances can break the stereotype of the primitive Filipino. Overall, both See and Tantuico acknowledge that taking a second look can allow us to build a new conception of the Filipino identity void of the information that the colonizer has laid down.

John Blanco contributes to the conversation on the postcolonial body and performance in his “Afterlives of Decolonization.” Blanco describes that See reflects upon Filipino Americans’ “impossibility of self-insertion into any classificatory schema of US multicultural difference except by recourse to ellipsis, hyperbole, misrecognition, and conspicuous mimicry.”[3] While Blanco does not discredit See’s observation, he does find it paradoxical that these tactics lead to the discovery of repressed knowledge about the history of the Philippines. He places a special emphasis on the survival of Filipino collective experiences and memories through historical amnesia and the perpetuation of American exceptionalism. Blanco recognizes the shortcomings of See’s work, for she does not explain how to make possible rapprochement or collective politics. He does, however, acknowledge that See provides us with materials to begin the project of transculturation.

Nerissa Balce brings a new approach to the conversation in her “Laughter Against the State.” See touches upon colonial melancholia, the idea that the Filipino colonized subject “does not know… what has been lost, even though he or she experiences the loss” and therefore “cannot name loss and therefore cannot mourn.”[4] According to See, mourning entails being able to identify the lost object, but when languages are destroyed, language becomes the lost object. Subjects are forced to speak the colonizer’s language, further reiterating the colonizer’s power. Balce, however, argues that “most cultures have an alternative language to name, understand, or recognize the colonial past through humor.”[5] Postcolonial satire leverages humor to respond to imperial conquest and colonial amnesia. See places a strong emphasis on the lost native language and views humor as a tool that allows the colonized to cope with the anxieties of the imperial past and problems of the present. Balce, however, is more optimistic in her interpretation. She believes that humor is not a coping mechanism but rather a tool that highlights the absurdity of ridiculous imperialist. We currently see this with ethnic American actors. Dave Chappelle satirizes legacies of slavery by taking on the role of Clayton Bigsby, a blind black white supremacist. Bigsby holds bigoted attitudes toward his own race, and it is not until he is encouraged to remove his capirote at a KKK convention that he discovers his own blackness. He goes onto divorce his wife, for how could she love a black man? Director Jordan Peele, in his film, Get Out, uses tropes and horror to reveal the pernicious nature of racism in America. Balce offers a similar approach to Chappelle and Peele, claiming that the colonized can utilize language and comedy to counter the popular narrative.

Stephanie Nohelani Teves, operating in the fields of Ethnic Studies & Women’s and Gender Studies, writes of a confessional performance by Native Hawaiian artist Cocoa Chandelier. Teves includes Rey Chow’s characterization of the confession. Chow explains the confession to be the “main approach in ethnic studies and Native studies scholarship” and explains that it “fetishizes the narratives of Natives who feel compelled to make [their] truth known against the historical silencing and belittling effects of colonialism.”[6] Breaking from the normative gender performance of aloha, Chandelier performs the ritual in drag, creating new meanings of Hawaiian indigeneity. Chandelier neither opposes nor assimilates colonial dominant ideology but rather disidentifies with it through her utilization of drag as a method of disruption. Chandelier’s performance is seemingly apolitical, for she subtly works against dominant ideologies of Hawaiianess and disrupts the very meaning of Hawaiianess. She both rejects the colonial notion of Hawaiianess and reinvests in it with her modification of the Hawaiian ritual. Teves observes that the performance “can be read as a staging of the death of commodified forms of Hawaiianess and aloha, but in this sacrifice a new formation of aloha becomes possible.”[7] Teves’s ideas relate to See’s belief that postcolonial performance evades rather than highlights the violence imposed by imperialist ventures.

Dylan Rodriguez, See’s colleague, rejects See’s notion that “Filipino America has developed… forms of expressive culture that have survived and countered the onslaught of American imperial violence.”[8] While See argues that this image of Filipino America defies geographical, ethnocultural, and geopolitical boundaries, Rodriguez rejects the very existence of the Filipino American subject. He states that there “is no ‘prior to’ or ‘outside of’ colonial dominance, genocidal conquest, and neocolonial rule for the putative Filipino subject.”[9] For Rodriguez, American white supremacy and racist violence have greatly influenced the Filipino in America. Their condition is extensively connected to this history of imperial violence, leaving no room for their self-determination. While See believes the Filipino American can resist colonialism with performance and the body, Rodriguez rejects any such notion. He concludes that since this term was born out of militarized white supremacy and genocidal state violence, such an identity cannot exist; the Filipino American that See references is simply American.

The scholarly conversation surrounding Filipino Americans’ resistance to colonialism through the use of the body is important because it highlights ongoing forms of invisible oppression. By taking a second look at the information provided by the colonizer, we can begin to break stereotypes and challenge the dominant narratives. The development of new narratives can help create a new Filipino American identity void of the colonizer’s prejudice.


Balce, Nerissa S. “Laughter Against the State: On Humor, Postcolonial Satire, and Asian American Short Fiction.” Journal of Asian American Studies; Baltimore 19, no. 1 (February 2016): 47-73,139.

Blanco, John. “Afterlives of Decolonization.” Postcolonial Studies 15, no. 3 (September 2012): 389–92.

“Critical Ethnic Studies: A Reader – Critical Ethnic Studies Editorial Collective Critical Ethnic Studies Editorial Collective – Google Books.” Accessed October 30, 2019.

Rodríguez, Dylan. Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition. Minneapolis, United States: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Echavez See, Sarita.“An Open Wound: AngelShaw ManuelOcampo.” In The Decolonized Eye, NED-New edition., 3–38. Filipino American Art and Performance. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Tantuico, Kathleen Felise Constance D. “The Filipino Primitive: Accumulation and Resistance in the American Museum.” Social Science Diliman 15, no. 1 (January 2019): 25–28.

“The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Accessed October 30, 2019.


  1. Sarita See, The Decolonized Eye, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 25.

  2. Kathleen Tantuico, “The Filipino Primitive: Accumulation and Resistance in the American Museum,” (Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2018), 28.

  3. John Blanco, “Afterlives of Decolonization,” (Routledge, Oxfordshire, 2012), 390.

  4. See, The Decolonized Eye, 6.

  5. Nerissa Balce, “Laughter against the State: On Humor, Postcolonial Satire, and Asian American Short Fiction,” Journal of Asian American Studies 19: 1 (Feb 2016): 53.

  6. Rey Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 114.

  7. Stephanie Teves, “Cocoa Chandelier’s Confessional: Kanaka Maoli Performance and Aloha in Drag,” (Durham, Duke University Press, 2016), 297.

  8. See, The Decolonized Eye, 23.

  9. Dylan Rodriguez, Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 5.